Storytelling on the stump : women narrating race and gender in Texas politics
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Political representation remains one of the areas in American life in which gender inequality is most pronounced, and scholars claim that women’s reluctance to run for office is now the most significant barrier to gender equality in the political sphere. Yet, researchers have not adequately grappled with the complexities and contradictions in women’s “deciding to run” accounts and have often overlooked the varied narrative strategies of women leaders across race, class, and social movement identities. I conducted 46 interviews with women leaders in Texas and fieldwork in a political campaign to examine the stories women tell to explain their decisions whether or not to run for office. I find that the “deciding to run” narratives that African-American women and Latinas employ are distinct from the stories white women use to explain their decisions whether or not to run for office, as they more often draw from civil rights discourses of courage, confidence, and commitment to their causes. I argue that feminist organizations actually encourage women to downplay their political ambition in the attempt to spread their social movement messages that women need to be recruited more heavily to run for office. These messages play an important role in influencing the reluctance story told by most of the white women I interviewed. I argue that structural factors such as majority-minority and majority-white voting districts also play a large role in shaping the “deciding to run” accounts of candidates and potential candidates, as raced-gendered and social movement discourses take different forms and carry varying weight in these political contexts. My findings challenge the dominant explanation for women’s sparse levels of office-holding, which suggests that women are under-represented in politics because they lack the confidence to enter political races. In addition, I highlight the political ambition of African-American women and Latinas, whose remarkable success records in seeking and winning elective office have not been accounted for in current paradigms explaining women’s under-representation. Finally, my research exposes the cultural dynamics underlying women’s “deciding to run” explanations, as I illuminate how women draw from raced-gendered and social movement discourses to account for their political decisions.